Thank you to those who have tried to solve this month’s Crocodile mystery regarding the yellow color of a book, which can be found in the Stickelberger collection of Reformation at the Folger Shakespeare Library (more on this collection in a future Collation post!). While we had many interesting guesses, we still cannot fully explain what caused the coloring of the paper in this book. Except for the white flyleaves, the textblock is on yellow paper with some leaves showing a green shade shift at the tidelines.
Two texts are bound in the volume: first a revised edition of the French version of the Geneva Bible from 1588 prepared by Theodore de Bèze among other theologians, second a translation of the Psalms by Clément Marot and Theodore de Bèze from 1587.1 The printer Jérémie des Planches is thought to have printed both works in Geneva, although his name does not appear in the first text.
Paper can be colored either or during the papermaking process. In his Craftsman’s Handbook, the artist Cennino Cennini describes how to tint pre-made paper. After having prepared the colorant, “lay some of [it] evenly over the ground of your paper, running your hand lightly, with the brush about half dry, first in one direction and then in the other. And put on three or four coats of it in this way, or five, until you see that the paper is tinted evenly. And wait long enough between one coat and the next for each coat to dry … When it is dry and done, take a penknife, and rub lightly over the tinted sheet with the blade, so as to remove any little roughness that there may be on it.”2 Cennini’s text stresses how time consuming and difficult it is to color paper and obtain an even tint throughout the sheet. This would also have been true when a colorant was added at the pulp-making stage.
Folger conservators have looked at our sammelband. They could not determine for sure whether or not the colorant was applied during the papermaking process. One may advance the theory, though, that it was tinted after the two texts were printed. A strong argument to support this is that the two texts were printed in two different years and no other extant copies of either these editions of the Geneva Bible or of Marot’s Psalms are recorded with paper of this color.
Books printed on yellow paper, at least for the early modern period, are extremely rare. Slightly more common are books printed on blue paper. See, for example, our copy of Orlando Furioso on blue paper:
Overall, though, books were not printed on colored paper because it could make reading their text difficult and it would not have been cost effective. By contrast, artists would sometimes use dyed paper to enhance their drawings and achieve certain artistic effects; but they would work on single sheets of colored paper, not a whole volume’s worth.
Our volume including a Geneva Bible and Psalms is, thus, a bit of an odd thing. Its paper was most likely colored for one of the owners of the book before being bound (or rebound) together. Two manuscript inscriptions dated from 1675 and 1753 on the front flyleaves of the book give us an idea of the period when the two texts may have been bound together. In the second manuscript note, we learn that an archdeacon from the Bavarian town of Landshut gave this book to a pastor near the town of Hirschberg (there are several towns in Germany and Switzerland with this name so it is yet to be determined to which one this inscription is referring).
Could one of these men have had the paper of this book colored and why anyone would want to have a yellow Calvinist Bible?
One possible explanation is that the coloring was intended to imitate gold. Indeed, the paper would have been of a much brighter color when it was first tinted than it appears today (the fading of the yellow color around the edges of the textblock indicates that the colorant used was not stable and probably shifted over time). A bright paper would have matched the binding in which the book is still housed: a fairly elaborate binding with gold stamping decorations and gauffered gilt edges.
Both paper and binding reflect the taste of someone who liked gold and perhaps wished to embellish these religious texts so that their physical form matched the importance of the content. Yet, it would have been a long and difficult process to obtain an even coloring on 50 sheets of paper or more (that is roughly the number of sheets used to print the Geneva Bible and the Psalms in octavo format in our volume). We certainly hope that the craftsman used a faster coloring method than the one described by Cennini.
Weld dye and turmeric are two known colorants used during this period to make yellow. Weld dye was then readily available throughout Europe and would have been cheaper to obtain than turmeric. In both cases, a mordant would have been used to fix the dye on the fiber of the paper.
So the mystery about our book remains. Our conservators have promised to do more research on it so stay tuned. Perhaps someday we’ll be back with a more satisfactory answer.